Japan from the inside out

The lid on the jar

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, March 28, 2010

If you need somebody you can trust, trust yourself.
– Bob Dylan, “Trust Yourself”

IT’S NOT EASY to pin down his precise wording, but former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew once said that allowing the Japanese to participate in peacekeeping organizations (or to rearm), was like giving liqueur-flavored chocolates to an alcoholic.

That might sound witty and insightful at first, but roll that around in your mind a bit and it starts coming off as too clever by half, as well as incongruent with the man’s exceptional intelligence.

Mr. Lee elaborated on the statement in an interview with Fareed Zakaria in the March/April 1994 issue of Foreign Affairs:

FZ: You’ve said recently that allowing Japan to send its forces abroad is like giving liquor to an alcoholic.

LKY: The Japanese have always had this cultural trait, that whatever they do they carry it to the nth degree. I think they know this. I have Japanese friends who have told me this. They admit that this is a problem with them.

Here’s an unexpected source to confirm his observation about Japanese intensity. On 9 September 1945, just 25 days after the end of war, the Showa Tenno (Hirohito) wrote to his son (the current Tenno, Akihito), then 14, who had been evacuated to Nikko:

Our countrymen believed too strongly in Imperial Japan, and underestimated the Americans and British. Our military forces overemphasized the spirit, and forgot about science.

There is an enduring strain in Japanese postwar thought whose primary element is a lack of self-trust. More than a few Japanese prefer to outsource their national defense to the United States because they think their countrymen are incapable of recognizing the proper limits of the use of military force. Some refer to this as the “lid for the jar” theory behind the continued support of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. Among the believers are even those on the Japanese left who dislike the United States and its presence here.

The theory holds that the security treaty and the presence of American military forces will keep the Japanese from falling off the wagon once they sample the liqueur-flavored chocolate of responsibility for their own self-defense and head off on another militaristic bender. The arrangement ensures that the demon of Japanese militarism is stuffed into a jar with the Americans as the lid.

Komori Yoshihisa, the Sankei Shimbun’s Washington correspondent, recalls on his Japanese-language blog that a former commander of the U.S. Marines based in Okinawa once made a similar observation and was promptly reassigned.

Mr. Komori reports that he recently attended a seminar in Washington D.C. on security guarantees in Asia and the role of Okinawa in the Japanese-American alliance. One of the speakers was Sato Manabu, a professor at Okinawa International University. The professor has been calling for the withdrawal of the Marines from Futenma for several years.

Prof. Sato thinks the Futenma airbase is unnecessary. During the seminar, he said that neither the Chinese military buildup nor North Korean nuclear weapons were much of a threat to Japan, and that negated the reason for the American military presence.

Mr. Komori asked him if he were opposed to the security treaty and the alliance. The professor answered:

No, I support them. That’s because I don’t trust the Japanese people.

The reporter concluded his blog post by saying the Okinawan scholar’s view of the Japanese people caused him to realize once again how difficult it would be to resolve the Futenma base issue.

The Japanese lack of trust and faith in themselves was inevitable once upon a time, but that attitude should now be obsolete.

Mr. Lee is correct that the Japanese do have a penchant for carrying things to the nth degree. (It’s one of the things I like about them, perhaps because I have the same tendency myself.) But he lived under Japanese occupation in Singapore as a young adult—indeed, he worked for them—and his quip is now at least 20 years old. The Japanese friends to whom he refers must have been people who were children or young adults during the war years. That would mean their attitudes were inevitably colored by their experiences of a bygone era that was more anomaly than representative.

One of their mistakes is the assumption that the Japanese capacity for single-mindedness in that era was devoted exclusively to militarism. That focus did become the dominant feature in national life starting from about 1930, according to domestic historians. Before that, however, the focus of the one-pointedness starting with the Meiji Restoration in 1868 was on nation-building. Some historians hold that the people who assumed the responsibilities for that duty were reared in the samurai tradition, which inevitably informed their attitudes and behavior.

In Northeast Asia in the latter part of the 18th century, national defense was an indispensable element of nation-building because it was a question of national survival. The European powers had already colonized most of Asia. Japan was next on the list, and the Japanese knew it.

The inebriation got out of hand when the militarists hijacked the state and decided to substitute European colonialism in Asia for their own. One can imagine how people with a tendency to do things to the nth degree would conduct warfare.

That the Japanese, and the rest of the world, thought the postwar solution required an American lid would be understandable—in 1950. That children and young adults who were alive in the early part of the 20th century continued to believe in that solution as they grew older is also understandable. But those days are as gone as the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. The world is a different place.

If there’s a serious market for militarism in Japan in 2010, in must be a black market deeply underground. The ethos of the samurai warrior class does not pervade the thinking of the politicians of any party. There’s just no evidence for it, and to suggest that the Japanese today are a beer and a Kalashnikov away from marching into The Philippines is unsupportable outside of a comic book.

Consider, just for the sake of discussion, what the Japanese would do if their supposedly militarist DNA were to once again assert control over the organism. Try to colonize the Korean Peninsula, Manchuria, and Taiwan? Send troops to mainland China? The Russian Far East? Indonesia? Malaysia?

Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore?

Just mentioning those possibilities demonstrates their implausibility. Indeed, if the taste for overseas military adventures were a critical strand of the Japanese DNA, it was sublimated very well during the roughly 250 years of the Edo period from the beginning of the 17th century to the middle of the 19th.

Now consider this: If the Americans left Northeast Asia tomorrow, which of the following countries would be the most likely, and which the least likely, to unsheathe their sabers: China, Russia, North Korea…or Japan? South Korea is unlikely to provoke a conflict in the region, but it would be unreasonable to claim that Japan is more of a potential threat than a country where military service is not only required of all males, it is also considered to be one of the Four Constitutional Duties, along with taxes, education, and labor. The Stockholm Peace Institute’s ranking of countries based on military spending as a percentage of GDP places South Korea 57th. Japan is ranked 149th, trailing even the neutral Swiss. Even if the American military were to bid Japan sayonara, would it rise higher than China, ranked 95th on the list? I don’t think so. (We also don’t know whether the Stockholm Peace Institute’s calculations include the substantial financial support Japan provides to the U.S. for the latter’s military presence.)

That someone can still stand up in front of an audience and say he seriously believes Americans must remain in Japan because the latter can’t be trusted is both a distortion of reality and an obstacle to Japan’s maturity as a nation-state. Is this yet another manifestation of the “blame yourself first” approach that is more attitude than end result of a logical thought process? Regardless, the self-abnegation no longer serves a purpose.

2 Responses to “The lid on the jar”

  1. σ1 said

    From my observation a lot of this comes from a complete misunderstanding of the diversity of political life during the Taisho period in the 20th Century. Many see linear progression from the Meiji restoration to the 1930s in terms of increasing state power over the lives of Japanese, and when combined with an erroneous assumption of an omnipotent emperor, and an even then, semi-mythical, samurai spirit, it all makes “natural” sense that such things would happen. A perfunctory reading of the 1910-1930 period would raise more questions than many could answer. I always wondered why this extremely interesting period is not focused on more in Japan itself currently.

    For some reason many, including a surprising amount of Japanese as you allude to, see the strong influence of “military” in Japanese history and political institutions but fail to see that aside from the 20th century Japan had only made a half hearted attempt at Korea in the 1590s after the Warring States period when civility and civilian government were not exactly the flavour of the month.

    In a way you could argue that ever since the later Heian period, despite the influence of military organisations and military families on politics and culture, the Japanese have managed to carve out some remarkable periods of peace and even pacifism.

  2. slim said

    I wonder if it’s the INSTITUTIONS, rather than the “national character,” of Japan that some people don’t trust.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: